January 6, started with an early morning sprint with our packs to the Popoyan bus station to catch our 7 am bus to Pasto. It had rained and I was slipping on the stones and annoyed at Eliot’s insistence that we walk rather than taxi. My head was still in north america, I expected a modern coach with air con and a bathroom that would leave on schedule. I was wrong. The Taxbelalcazar bus was one of those airport car rental shuttles.
just kidding , here was the bus
No air con. no bathroom, but great salsa music and wifi. As we pulled out of the station I read a Facebook post by my high school friend Andrew about his first class flight to Hong Kong with its crab amuse bouche, selection of first run movies and lie flat bed with 500 thread count cotton sheets. I had to laugh at the contrast. Like me, Andrew was going on an adventure for his 50th birthday year and like me he was doing it in his own way. Both of us were awkward teenagers that did not quite fit in (neither of us liked hockey or girls). Yet we managed to grow into relatively well adjusted (or perhaps less awkward) adults who are still true to ourselves.
Pasto is about 250 km from Popayan and the drive takes about 6 hours and costs 40,000 Colombian pesos (about $17.00 cdn. see map We started in the rain and a traffic jam on the south road caused by an overturned fruit truck. We were on the Panamerica – not the Transamerica – but the highway that runs from the Carribean all the way down to Patagonia. The Popayan to Pasto stretch started with steep mountain passes that switchbacked down into green valleys and back up the other side. We stopped at a road stop for lunch and I had the caldo de pollo (chicken soup ) it had potatoes, chicken liver and a chicken foot- So I had my taxbelalcazar amuse bouche which I promptly fed to the cat at my feet.
After passing through the steep mountains we hit a long plateau.It got drier and I saw cactus. The driver slowed down suddenly because there were people in the middle of the road. I had heard about bandits and was thinking this is it, I am going to be robbed on the first day of independent travel. I reached for my passport with the intention of putting it in my underwear. The bus drive feigned a stop, then veered into the left lane an kept going. I was relieved, Eliot told me that they were not bandits just people asking for money, something to do with the wise men. We then climbed up to this very steep escarpment and continued along this crazy road.
The variation in the countryside over such a short distance was impressive and despite having no movies, I found that I was not bored. I was not too comfortable, it was hot, and then rain came in through the sunroof and I had to make a lumbar support out of my spare shirt. Aside from a poodle that was chewing on my pack strap, there were no animals on the bus, we were not robbed, and we arrived on time. Not bad for our first bus trip of many that will take us to Peru.
We arrived in Pasto around 1.30. The town is quite large and is sandwiched between mountains to the east and west. The Carnaval de blancos y negros was in full swing. January 6 was the blanco day and the town was full of revellers spraying each other with this white foam called carioca and throwing chalk powder. The cab driver was not one of the happy ones, his cab was covered in garbage bags and hermetically sealed. He made us get out at the edge of the parade pointed in a general direction and said- your hotel is over there. So we started walking, two gringos with heavy packs. The Colombians attacked from all sides and we got covered in chalk and sprayed as we struggled to find a way across the parade route. It was all in good fun everyone was friendly about it but there was no way we would not get hit
We walked into the Hotel Frances La Maison covered in chalk and foam. The hotel is a small modern boutique hotel. The receptionist did not bat an eye at the foam & chalk covered backpackers. He showed us to our room which was very well set up. We kept our chalked clothing and Eliot wrapped himself in a sarong and put on sun glasses. As we left the hotel to explore the receptionist handed us each a pair of black goggles. The parade floats where these elaborate colourful caricatures of Colombians or Pastoinians
The carnival was nearing the climax at the end of the parade and people were going crazy with the chalk and the foam. There were narrow gauntlets set up where you would get it from both sides. Eliot tried to avoid one by going under a fence, he was followed and covered.
It was this playful pandemonium and everyone was in the act, kids, parents, teenagers police. I noticed that the food vendors, and parade people were spared the spray and chalk. Eliot and I were not so lucky. However, it was all in the spirit of fun.
After the parade ended the crowd went crazier and emptied their chalk and foam on each other Eliot and I included.
Here is what we looked like in the aftermath
That night we went out with an American couple from San Francisco that we met in the lobby. Angela is an Anthropologist and David is a computer programmer and they were seasoned travellers. However, even they needed advice for getting around the foaming which had evolved at night to random guerrilla like attacks from youth standing on the back of pick up trucks patrolling the streets like the taliban.
They were trying to find a restaurant that was; 1) open 2) had some local charm 3) they could get to without getting covered in chalk and foam. Once again the receptionist Jonathan came to our rescue. He called a cab and it took us to La Merced. The place was packed with chalk covered revellers and we thought we may try to find something quieter. The security guard said there was a place 2 blocks up the street, So we ventured out, got foamed and of course could not find the restaurant- Ask Someone Who knows. A little girl asked us where we were from and if her parents could take her picture with us. They do not get many foreign tourists and I guess we were a hit.We asked them where to eat and they recommended La Merced “es spectacular”. I was thinking that in Colombia local charm does not mean the little Italian place on the corner with the checked table cloth. Restaurants are more utilitarian and local charm means the little store where the old lady grinds her own corn for the arepas cholas (sweet corn cakes) and makes her own cheese. So far the fancier places we have been too have been more westernized. La Meced was like that, very modern but decent food and even more importantly great conversation. David and Angela have travelled extensively and we shared advice talked about politics, books you name it. That is one of the other great things about travel you can meet such interesting people.
Coming up in next post the Guinea pig festival…